Summer doesn’t have to be about thrillers and romances (though it can be).
If you love maps – and don’t we all? – there’s a book about a big, round ancient one in Venice, and an ever bigger one, still in the making, of the entire ocean floor. In sport, there are books about near-forgotten athletes ripe for resurrection, and books about sports getting rich off violence and data analysis. If nature’s your happy place, there are deep dives into the worlds of owls and bears and birds (including a memoir by a magpie). In fiction, look for offerings from such stalwarts as Richard Ford, Patrick DeWitt and Ann Patchett, as well as up-and-comers Caleb Azumah Nelson, Genevieve Scott and Jamaluddin Aram.
The Imposters, by Tom Rachman (Doubleday/Bond St, June)
At the centre of Rachman’s Russian doll of a novel is Dora Frenhofer, an elderly, London-based Dutch writer – author of “a succession of small novels about small men in small crises” – who copes with the combined loneliness of the pandemic and an ultimately disappointing career by working on a series of interlinked stories about the people – family and friends from points near and far – who made her.
Be Mine, by Richard Ford (HarperCollins, June)
The fifth and potentially final book in the cycle of novels about Ford’s iconic anti-hero Frank Bascombe – which began in 1986 with The Sportswriter and includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day – has 74-year-old Frank facing not just his own mortality, but his son’s imminent death from ALS.
Soldier Sailor, by Claire Kilroy (Faber & Faber, July)
Is the fog of early motherhood anything like the fog of war? By naming her protagonist – the new mom in question – “Soldier,” the Rooney Prize-winning Irish writer would seem to suggest so. Written as a confessional monologue to Soldier’s baby son (the titular “Sailor,” no tinkers or tailors to be found here), the novel has been called by one reviewer “a whole-body experience.”
The Librarianist, by Patrick deWitt (Anansi, July)
DeWitt takes a step away from the more flamboyant, dark-comedic stylings of novels such as French Exit and The Sisters Brothers in this subdued, character-driven story of a retired 71-year-old librarian in Portland, Ore., who, prompted by a chance encounter with an eccentric woman in the aisles of a 7-Eleven, revisits various events of his life, including his fiancée’s long-ago betrayal.
Lump, by Nathan Whitlock (Dundurn, July)
Mining the lives of his dysfunctional, downwardly mobile characters has been Whitlock’s stock-in-trade since his first novel, A Week of This. In his third, he gives us Cat, an underemployed web designer and mother of two in her late 30s who, after discovering she’s pregnant, has cancer and that her creep of a husband is on the cusp of being MeToo’ed, takes what seems like the next (il)logical step by walking away from it all.
Small Worlds, by Caleb Azumah Nelson (Grove, July)
The British-Ghanaian’s stylish first novel, Open Water, about young Black creatives in London, won a raft of awards, including the Costa Book Award for first novel, and made a bunch of best-of lists. The small world referred to in the title of this follow-up is the immigrant Ghanaian community in Peckham, in southeast London, where we follow the trials and tribulations of a young musician named Stephen.
The Damages, by Genevieve Scott (Random House, July)
“What I remember best about that week in January is trying to keep track of all the lies I told,” is the grabby opening line to this dark coming-of-age novel by the California-based Canadian. See-sawing between the late 1990s and the present, it tells the story of Ros, a woman forced to revisit the disappearance of her university roommate during an ice storm after Ros’s ex-partner, and father of her child, is accused of sexual assault.
Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, August)
In Patchett’s latest, three adult sisters find themselves harvesting the family cherry orchard (smell the Chekhov?) in Michigan after the pandemic leaves them worker-less. To break up the long, arduous days, they ask their mother to reflect on her life and acting career, abandoned years ago, and romance with a well-known, charismatic actor who recently died.
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, by Lorrie Moore (Knopf Doubleday, June)
Moore’s under- and otherworldly novel involves, among other flights of mortal fancy, a days-long road trip undertaken involving Finn, a high-school teacher, and the corpse of his undead ex-girlfriend, Lily, and a series of letters from the female owner of an inn in the Confederate South to her dead sister.
Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck (New Directions, June)
Can love conquer all? Perhaps not. Personal life, history and morality collide in this new novel from the German author of the brilliant Go, Went, Gone, about an intergenerational couple (she’s 19, with artistic ambitions; he’s a famous married writer over 50) who meet during the final days of the German Democratic Republic in East Berlin but struggle to see eye-to-eye after the wall comes down and their country enters the reunification era.
Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday, by Jamaluddin Aram (Scribner, June)
Aram, a documentary filmmaker from Kabul who now lives in Toronto, sets his novelistic debut about “peace in a time of war” in a small town in 1990s Afghanistan shortly after the withdrawal of Russian troops but after the onset of civil war. There’s a fable-like quality to the story, which gives us the reactions of various townsfolk – the Cobbler’s Son, the Bucktoothed Tailor, the Old Barber, the Bonesetter, the Widow – to a spate of unnerving recent occurrences.
No One Prayed Over Their Graves, by Khaled Khalifa (FSG, July)
The Syrian writer moves from the tragedy of the current civil war in that country, portrayed in his previous novel, Death Is Hard Work, to one from a previous era: a flood that, in 1907, swept away an entire small town on the Euphrates river near Aleppo. The story of two men who survive because they were away (but lose their entire families) is the starting point for a broader, six-decade saga about a once diverse society crumbling in the face of dark forces.
The Romantic, by William Boyd (Knopf, August)
Born in 1799 into modest circumstances, Cashel Ross, the subject of Boyd’s comic fictional autobiography, and 17th novel, goes on to live a peripatetic, boom-and-bust life that intersects with major historical events and people of the century to come: He joins the British army at 15 and fights at Waterloo, tries his hand at farming and brewing, and hunts for the source of the Nile. In Pisa, Italy, he hangs with actual Romantics Shelley and Lord Byron, the latter of whom, a would-be warrior, “almost seemed jealous of my experiences and my wound.”
Game of Edges: The Analytics Revolution and the Future of Professional Sports, by Bruce Schoenfeld (Norton, June)
Through research and interviews, Schoenfeld tells the story of how the “Moneyball” revolution – the use of data analysis and miniscule advantages called “edges” to engineer success – has spread from baseball, which used to rely on hot dogs and souvenirs for a relatively modest profit, to a host of other sports, transforming them into the revenue-spewing behemoths beloved of hedge-fund managers, Silicon Valley venture caplitalists and the billionaire class that we know today.
1934: The Chatham Coloured All-Stars’ Barrier-Breaking Year, by Heidi LM Jacobs (Biblioasis, June)
At the height of the Depression, and a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in major-league baseball, the Chatham All-Stars, based in the Ontario town of the same name, became the first all-Black team to capture the sport’s provincial title. “There are few other places in North America where this particular team could have formed,” writes Jacobs, a Windsor-based professor and baseball enthusiast, who worked, in part, off the extensive written and oral archives passed on to her by team members’ descendants.
Cage Kings: How an Unlikely Group of Moguls, Champions, & Hustlers Transformed the UFC Into a $10 Billion Industry, by Michael Thomsen (Simon & Schuster, June)
In 2020, Conor McGregor, the biggest star of the Vegas-based mixed martial arts promotion company UFC, was the highest-paid athlete in the world, topping Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James and Tom Brady. You don’t have to be interested in the sight of two nearly barefoot guys in bathing suits pummelling each other silly to be interested in the story of how a sport once banned in the majority of states, and that as recently as the late 1990s was on the edge of bankruptcy, became one of the most valuable in the world.
Famous for a Time: Forgotten Giants of Canadian Sport, by Jason Wilson & Richard M. Reid (Dundurn, July)
Sports history, like history itself, has tended to focus on the achievements of the winners; those who inevitably become enshrined in various halls of fame created for this purpose. The authors, both history professors at the University of Guelph, here offer a “micro-museum” of Canadian athletes – lacrosse players, cricketers, boxers – who sparked briefly between the 1880s and 1920s, asking what their subsequent obscurity says about our evolving social values.
Pageboy, by Elliot Page (HarperCollins, June)
Page couldn’t have anticipated that his memoir – which covers, among many other things, the gender-dysphoria-related self-loathing and abuse he grappled with starting in his Nova Scotia childhood and enduring through Hollywood stardom – would land at a time when transgender people have become the de facto front line in the continuing culture wars south of the border. “I’ve spent much of my life chipping away toward the truth, while terrified to cause a collapse,” he writes.
George: A Magpie Memoir, by Frieda Hughes (Simon & Schuster, June)
The daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes doesn’t need to spell out – and indeed she doesn’t – why, after an unpredictable, peripatetic childhood and a failed marriage, she might crave “plants, pets, and a home of my own that I would never have to move from.” She finds all that in a house in rural Wales, plus a “needy, charming, attention-seeking” magpie (rendered in Hughes’s own wonderful illustrations) whose rehabilitation from a forlorn fledgling is the subject of this book.
The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession, by Michael Finkel (Knopf, June)
Those who investigate art crimes are wont to say that the Dr. No type – that is, the Bond villain who steals art solely for his own personal pleasure – doesn’t exist. Those people never met Stéphane Breitwieser, a.k.a. the world’s “most prolific art thief,” a.k.a. “the Arsène Lupin of museums,” who audaciously carried out hundreds of heists in the late 1990s, many in broad daylight, with the aim of prettifying his private attic lair in a nondescript French town.
Paper Trails: From the Backwoods to the Front Page, a Life in Stories, by Roy MacGregor (Random House, August)
MacGregor jokes than he’s written more books than he’s read. He’s only half joking. In this, his something-th book, he looks back on a 50-year journalism career that began inauspiciously, when he authoritatively declared that the rock opera Tommy was written by the Guess Who. It has since encompassed gigs at nearly every Canadian publication of note – including this one, where he was a long-time columnist and sportswriter.
It Stops Here: Standing Up for Our Lands, Our Waters, and Our People, by Rueben George with Michael Simpson (Allen Lane, August)
The Sundance Chief and member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, (and grandson of the late chief Dan George) based around B.C.’s Burrard Inlet, tells the story of how his people, alongside various Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies, have taken on the battle against the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline through unceded traditional land. Though it touches on George’s hardscrabble youth (he’d been in more than 120 fights by his early 20s), addictions and intergenerational trauma, the overall message is one of strength, positivity and gratitude.
What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin, June)
Owls have captured the human imagination the world over; been taken – depending on the culture – for portents good and bad; perhaps because their cryptic nature has made them so hard to study. Tapping into recent research, and exploring the stunning diversity of the owl world, Ackerman aims to enlighten us and to settle the question once and for all: Are these glorious, swivel-headed beasts in fact wise?
Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World, by Christian Cooper (Random House, June)
The first chapter in this book, “An Incident in Central Park,” is, cheekily, not about the incident that made its author famous – a white dog walker with the same last name called 911 claiming he was threatening her after he asked her to put her cocker spaniel on a leash (that’s covered near the end, in “Another Incident in Central Park”) – but rather about the self-proclaimed “gay Black nerd” running to nab a sighting of the rarest songbird in North America, Kirtland’s Warbler. The rest interweaves anecdotes from a sometimes bumpy life that began in 1970s Long Island, and in which birding proved a passion and solace.
Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future, by Oliver Franklin-Wallis (Hachette, July)
“There are few places in the world that give you a better view of humanity than a dump,” says the author of this eye-opening journey into the business of waste that took him from sewers to landfills to recycling facilities to secondhand clothing markets in India and Ghana, ground zero sites of so-called “toxic colonialism.”
Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future, by Gloria Dickie (Norton, July)
Dickie was a masters student studying bear-human conflict in the Rockies when she decided to embark on an “ursine odyssey” to observe the world’s remaining eight species of bears. It took her to locales both far flung – wild pandas in the Min Mountains of China, spectacled bears in the Andes, sloth bears in India – and close at hand. Despite bears’ seemingly privileged place in human lore, she walks away from the project with “an unromanticized view of bears’ tenuous position in the Anthropocene.”
Message in a Bottle: Ocean Dispatches from a Seabird Biologist, by Holly Hogan (Knopf, June)
The Newfoundland biologist begins her book about the threatening ubiquity of ocean plastic with an object lesson on a remote island in Labrador. While scanning for seabirds, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest settlement, Hogan trains her sights upon an intact disposable diaper inside a pile of polar bear dung. The bear hadn’t eaten a baby. Rather, “The tragedy was the diaper itself.”
The Deepest Map: The High-Stakes Race to Chart the World’s Oceans, by Laura Trethewey (Goose Lane, July)
“We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean,” is an oft-repeated cliché that, as the author, an environmental journalist, learned, turns out to be true. Another cliché in the making is that the amount of seafloor left to be mapped “is nearly double the size of all the continents on Earth combined.” This book follows the technology and characters – their motives range from exploitative to conservationist to the scientific – aiming to change that.
Kings of Their Own Ocean: Tuna, Obsession, and the Future of Our Seas, by Karen Pinchin (Knopf, July)
Weaving in the incredible multiyear ocean-crossings of a tagged bluefin tuna named Amelia – after Amelia Earhart – the Canadian investigative journalist gives us the story of how tuna populations started bottoming out in 1970s after spiking demand for sushi-grade tuna created a billion-dollar industry. Describing these spectacular apex predators, Pinchin asks us to imagine “a grand piano shaped like a weapon.”
Graveyard of the Pacific: Shipwreck and Survival on America’s Deadliest Waterway, by Randall Sullivan (Grove, June)
Using a blend of memoir, history and geology, the long-time Rolling Stone contributor and triple Pulitzer nominee recounts his attempt to cross the notoriously treacherous Columbia River Bar by sail kayak. The spot where the latter waterway meets the ocean is home to more than 2,000 shipwrecks, and Sullivan peppers his narrative with stories of some of the most famous and dramatic.
Here Begins the Dark Sea: Venice, a Medieval Monk, and the Creation of the Most Accurate Map of the World, by Meredith F. Small (Pegasus, June)
Seven feet in diameter, the 15th-century mappa mundi that today hangs in Venice – a “priceless masterpiece of cartography”– was one of the first maps to show Africa in detail and to include Japan. Small, an anthropologist, explains the map’s significance, while copious notes written all over – some of them transcriptions of the eye-witness accounts of travellers – shed fascinating light on the life of its little-known creator, the Camaldolese monk known as Fra Mauro.
Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life and Sudden Death, by Laura Cumming (Scribner, July)
The long-time Observer critic and author of The Vanishing Velazquez blends memoir (her father was a painter) with art history as she builds a portrait of Dutch painter Carel Fabritius – famous for his painting The Goldfinch that was also the focus of Donna Tartt’s novel – who was killed in 1654 by a freak explosion at a gunpowder store that spared, through lucky circumstance, his neighbour and chief rival, Vermeer.
The Fourth Turning Is Here: What the Seasons of History Tell Us about How and When This Crisis Will End, by Neil Howe (S&S, July)
The author’s previous book, The Fourth Turning, written with the late Bill Strauss in 1997, proposed a cyclical theory of Anglo-American history based on 20-year “turnings.” It proved prescient about a number of things, included the 2008 global financial crisis and the rise of Trumpism. In this anticipated follow-up, Howe sheds light on our position within the fourth and current “Crisis” turning (following High, Awakening, and Unravelling), and manages to find, thank god, some silver linings.